How to Become a Freelance Editor

Ten years ago, I started an MA in creative writing. It was one of the best decisions I ever made because it opened so many doors I could’ve never opened on my own. Fast forward to 2015 when I quit my full-time job to be a full-time freelance writer and editor (and stay at home mom). It was one of the most questionable decisions I’ve ever made (mostly because it’s insane to try to “work from home” with small children.

My co-workers

My co-workers

On a related note, the sauvignon blanc industry’s stocks have soared.). Now, I have a freelance editing company and am deepening my foray into the publishing industry. As an editor, I get a lot of questions from people who also want to get into editing. Here’s what I advise.

The Pros & Cons of Being a Freelance Editor

Unless you have industry experience and an existing clientele list, don’t quit your day job. Start editing on the side to see if you like it. Editing in theory and editing in reality are very, very different things. Before they do it, most people focus on the immediately-gratifying pros of freelance editing like…

  • Getting to go to work in your jammies

  • Setting your own schedule

  • Not having to deal with office politics

  • Working with words, writers, and writing all day (how glam!)

There are other pros, but there are also some cons like…

  • Not having a guaranteed revenue stream

  • Having to budget responsibly and to do quarterly taxes, so you’re not traumatized at the end of the calendar year with a huge debt to the IRS

  • Needing to learn to do a budget in general

  • Needing to respond to fast (and sometimes unreasonable) deadlines

  • Waiting or repeatedly asking to get paid (sometimes)

  • Not having anyone to talk to at work

There are other cons as well.

"So, why would anyone want a job where the cons list outweighs the pros list?” you ask.

How to Know if You’d be a Good Freelance Editor

“Great question!” I say. I love being an editor I passionately love writing, words, and helping authors write fantastic stories. I know that’s the pageant answer, but it’s the damn truth. It’s so much fun for me. The fact that I get paid to do something I care about makes me feel like the luckiest gal in the world despite the occasional rough patches (you must budget for those times), ponying up a percentage to the IRS (I would look horrible in prison orange), the dry spells (oh, the insecurity…it’s like middle school all over again), etc.

Thus, the types of people who tend to make good editors are:

  • Detail-oriented

  • Methodical

  • Organized

  • Introverted

  • Disciplined

For example, you’re going to have to be able tell friends and family that you’re not available during the day when you have to work. People love to assume that because I’m freelance, I’m “free”. Nope. I have deadlines and mile-long to-do lists. I’m the finance committee, the marketing department, and the labor department all rolled into one. I work harder as a freelancer than I ever did as a salaried employee. Few people understand this.

Know When to Quit Your Day Job

Speaking of being a salaried employee, I quit my “day job” when I was making my monthly salary as an editor. I saved a lot of money in the months leading up to the transition, and I paid off a lot of pesky bills, too. That helped tremendously because it was still quite the transition. Though the grand total was about the same, I wasn’t being paid a consistent amount every two weeks; I was being paid a variable amount whenever a job was finished. Some months paid incredibly well; others were scant. 

So, my word of advice to anyone looking to become a full-time freelance editor is: Do not quit your day job until you are making at least your previous salary.

Figure Out What Kind of Editor Your Are

Another big misconception about being a freelance editor is that you do it all. That’s not true. For one, there are fiction editors, nonfiction editors, genre-specific editors, technical editors, journal editors…. There are proofreaders, copyeditors, line editors, developmental editors, ghostwriters….. Some of these specialists can do more than one thing, but a lot of editors specialize, which actually helps their business grow.

I started in technical editing and writing (grants and journal articles). I moved on to writing and editing content marketing pieces, then to travel stories. In the interim, I did some books and novels, and I realized how much I loved working with stories. Stories have always been my love, so I adjusted my career navigation and set sail toward my personal happily-ever-after. 

Get Some Extra Training

Of course, I didn't wake up one morning and decide to be a novel and book editor. Despite already having strong proofreading and copyediting skills along with line editing experience, I needed to hone my skills in my area of focus. 

Because I wanted to branch into other areas of creative editing, I took courses from already-great developmental editors, like Jennifer Lawler and Heidi Fiedler, to sharpen my skills in developmental editing. If you want to get into editing but need a skills boost or refresh, the Editorial Freelancers Association (EFA) and American Copy Editors Society (ACES) offer training in real life and online for editors (usually at a discount for members).

In addition to training through membership organizations, many editors do certification training courses either online or in real life to add to their resumes. I have my MA in creative writing, and I’m in a program with George Washington University for publishing. While you, new editor, are still getting your portfolio established, getting additional training is one of the best things that you can do.


Build Your Portfolio

Speaking of your portfolio, you’ll likely find that different types of authors seeking freelance editing services have varied standards. Many authors of journal articles wanted editors with PhDs or experience in the field of study. Meanwhile, creative authors tend to want editors who have a whole host of interesting qualifications ranging from:

  • Publisher or agent contacts

  • A list of award-winning novels edited

  • Expertise in a given genre

  • Publications of their own

  • A long list of past clients

  • References (Stephen King, ideally)

Some of these wish list items are a little extreme. For example, I remember a listing from one client who wanted an editor who could guarantee they could get the work picked up by a publisher. Ummm.... Needless to say, I didn’t bother seeing if that client was interested in what I could do for their manuscript. (I'd never guarantee a client I could get them a publisher especially not without seeing the writing.)

“Okay, that’s great," you say, "but how do I build a portfolio?”

The answer is start small and start for free. Unless you can get a job with a publisher to build your reputation and business, you’re going to have to work your way to the top.

I started out doing jobs that others sent my way (note that because I was already a paid editor, I did charge for my services, but the rates were comparatively low). Some of those people who sent gigs to me were fellow editors whose plates were too full; some were fellow writers who had friends working on manuscripts. Word of mouth is still the best way to land new gigs. Other strategies include:

  • Offering services for free – Do you know any authors? If so, offer to edit their work for free.

  • Having a website – You need a web presence that shows you’re a serious, knowledgeable editor. List services, prices, and contact information. This enables former clients to refer new clients to you.

  • Reaching out to authors in your community – Most communities have authors guilds or similar. Get your name out there and let authors know that you’re willing to do editing for cheap.

  • Volunteering for internships or other editing opportunities – Look around your community or online for internships with publishers in your interest area. Likewise, see who has copy and ask if they’d like free or low-cost editing services.

Be honest about the fact that you’re new and are building your professional reputation. Once you have a little experience, you can start charging. Importantly, make it clear to those with whom you work for free (if you do) that it’s a one-time deal. Afterward, you will charge something for services. To get an idea of freelancer rates, the EFA has a resource to help.

Another thing is that when you're starting out, you can't be too discerning. When I started writing and editing, I had a strict policy to never say no to any job (some jobs were much more enjoyable than others). I was also never late on any submission. You’d be surprised how many writers and editors are inconsistent or who miss their deadlines. I would like to think it was my skillset that kept me employed during those early years of being a professional editor and writer, but I am sure that my timeliness and consistency were also major factors.

Ultimately, to be a freelance editor, you have to be willing to be your own boss, and you have to be willing to be a real stickler. It can be a pain in the butt sometimes, like on those nights you lose sleep because you are trying to catch up on your work or because a project is taking longer than you anticipated, but if you love writing, love editing, and have the right temperament, freelance editing is a fantastic job to have.

Whoa, why would an editor endorse other editors? Because it’s a great gig, and the wonderful world of authors needs a wonderful world of solid editors. We all have different niches; mine are new, unpublished writers looking for an immersive workshop or coaching experience, memoirists, mystery novelists, contemporary authors, and more. Yours is different, and any editor worth her salt is going to be happy to help you decide if editing is the direction you want to go with your writing career.